Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Memory Code: How Oral Cultures Memorise So Much Information

Australian Aboriginal rock painting of "T...
Australian Aboriginal rock painting (M O'Neil, Wikipedia)
by Duane W. Hamacher, Monash University, The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/the-memory-code-how-oral-cultures-memorise-so-much-information-65649

Ancient Celtic bards were famous for the sheer quantity of information they could memorise. This included thousands of songs, stories, chants and poems that could take hours to recite in full.

Today we are pretty spoiled. Practically the whole of human knowledge is conveniently available at our fingertips. Why worry about memorising something when we can simply Google it? The answer seems pretty evident when we go into a panic after losing our smartphones!

Long before the ancient Celts, Aboriginal Australians were recording vast scores of knowledge to memory and passing it to successive generations. Aboriginal people demonstrate that their oral traditions are not only highly detailed and complex, but they can survive - accurately - for thousands, even tens of thousands, of years. Yet I struggle to remember what I did last Tuesday. So how did they do it?

Researcher Lynne Kelly was drawn to this question while investigating Aboriginal knowledge about animals for her PhD. It was evident to Kelly that Aboriginal people catalogued huge scores of information about animals - including species types, physical features, behaviour, links to food and plants - and wondered how they do it.

A memorable thing

Aboriginal elders explained to her how they encode knowledge in song, dance, story and place. This led to a theory that may revolutionise archaeology.

It has long been known that the human brain has evolved to associate memory with place, referred to as the method of loci. This means that we associate memory with a location. How often do memories come flooding back to us when we visit our childhood haunt? 

Loci (Latin for “place”), can refer to landscape features, ceremonial sites, abstract designs - anything with distinct features where information can be linked to memory.

Stonehenge evolved from a simpler structure to the complex megalith we see today over the course of thousands of years. Was it an evolving memory space? Duane Hamacher, Author provided

Kelly developed this into a framework that may explain the purpose of famous sites such as Stonehenge, the Nasca lines and the Moai of Easter Island. The meanings of these sites have been a topic of controversy for decades. What Kelly proposes in her new book The Memory Code is that sites such as Stonehenge and the Nasca lines are actually memory spaces.

Knowledge is power

In oral cultures, knowledge is power. It is imperative that the most important knowledge be maintained and preserved by a few select custodians who have proven their worth. In Indigenous cultures, elders who have passed the highest levels of initiation hold the deepest levels of knowledge. This is reflected in ceremonial sites where knowledge is passed down. Aboriginal initiation sites include a secret area where the most sacred knowledge is discussed.

We also see this at Stonehenge, where the perimeter of standing stones shields the centre of the ring, where the most important aspects knowledge are passed on through ceremony. These sites include features that are unique in shape and form. At Uluru, the Anangu elders associate every crevice, bump, and notch around the perimeter of the mountain with knowledge that is stored to memory.

Uluru close up reveals a very textured environment. Shutterstock/Peter Zurek

Star maps and memory

But loci is not only linked to places you can touch or visit. Indigenous people also use the stars as memory spaces. For example, groups of stars can represent features on the landscape. Aboriginal Law Man Ghillar Michael Anderson explains how the Euahlayi people were able to travel long distances for trade and ceremony.

The Euahlayi would memorise star maps at night and learn the songs that talk about their relationship to the land. Each star was associated with a landscape feature, such as a waterhole. Later in the year, they would sing the song as they travelled across country by day. These songline routes became the foundation of some of our highway networks that criss-cross the country. Rather than navigating by the stars, the stars themselves serve as a memory space.

Landscape features and songlines represented by stars in the Milky Way also correspond to modern highways. Robert Fuller and Google Maps, Author provided

In The Memory Code, Kelly provides new insights into how oral societies are able to store vast quantities of knowledge to memory without it degrading over time. It may explain how Aboriginal memories of land that existed before it was flooded by rising sea levels during the last Ice Age survived in oral tradition for more than 7,000 years.

To test it herself, Kelly used the technique to memorise all of the world’s countries in order of population by linking them with features around her neighbourhood, including buildings and gardens - making up her own stories for each one. And she can now recite them flawlessly. You might be surprised how easy it is to do yourself.

Duane W. Hamacher, Senior ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Why Danger is Exciting but Only to Some People

BASE jumping the Perrine Bridge, Idaho, USA
BASE jumping the Perrine Bridge, Idaho, USA (Wikipedia)
by Valerie Voon, University of Cambridge, The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/why-danger-is-exciting-but-only-to-some-people-64680

It has been the most deadly summer for wingsuit flying to date. But what makes some people want to base jump off a cliff, binge drink to oblivion or hitchhike with strangers while others don’t even enjoy a rollercoaster ride?

Is there such a thing as scaredy-cat gene or a daredevil brain structure? Or is our level of attraction to danger down to how protective our parents were?

Whether our weakness is extreme sports, speeding, drugs or other dangerous behaviours, it is typically a mix of risk and novelty that draw us in. What psychologists call “novelty seeking” is the preference for the unexpected or new. People with this trait are often impulsive and easily bored - but new experiences release a surge of pleasure chemicals in their brains. A rat or human with preferences for novelty will be more likely to do drugs and binge drink.

The concepts of risk and novelty are to some extent linked: a new stimulus is inherently more risky in that any associated consequence is unknown. However, we can dissociate these two in the laboratory.

It’s (always) about dopamine

Dopamine, used by neurons to transmit messages to other neurons, is often described as the brain’s “pleasure chemical”. Dopamine cells lie in the mid-brain, deep in the base of the brain, and send “projections” to brain regions where the dopamine molecule is released - such as those involved in the control of action, cognition and reward. Studies have shown that the dopamine system can be activated by rewarding experiences, such as eating, having sex or taking drugs.

In a study of patients with Parkinson’s disease, who were on drugs that stimulated dopamine receptors used to treat their movement symptoms, 17% developed highly unexpected behavioural addictions to gambling or compulsive sexual, shopping or eating behaviours. These patients also sought out risks more, and showed a preference for novelty on lab tests. So it seems that an active dopamine system can make us take more risks.

A study on anticipating risk showed that expecting a win is associated with an increase in brain activity in dopamine regions, whereas expecting a loss is associated with a decrease in such activity. Both drive us to take risk. Wingsuit flying or roller coaster riding are motivated by our expectation of reward - a thrill - but wingsuit flying may also driven by an urge to avoid loss (in this case death). The likelihood of a thrill from base jumping or a roller coaster is close to 100%. But while the likelihood of death from a rollercoaster ride is close to 0%, the chances of dying from basejumping are considerably higher. The closer to the extremes, 0% or 100%, the more certain, whereas the closer to 50%, the more uncertain.

Dopamine reward pathways in the human brain. Oscar Arias-Carrión1, Maria Stamelou, Eric Murillo-Rodríguez, Manuel Menéndez-González and Ernst Pöppel. - Oscar Arias-Carrión1, Maria Stamelou, Eric Murillo-Rodríguez, Manuel Menéndez-González and Ernst Pöppel., CC BY-SA

Many, but not all, studies have found that people with a certain dopamine receptor are more likely to be thrill seeking. This gene variant is also associated with greater responses to unexpected rewards in the brain, making the unexpected thrill more thrilling. Genetic hardwiring might therefore explain the tendency towards base jumping, linking the preference for novelty and also possibly for risk and reward. But how we are brought up also has an impact. And adolescents are known to be more risk taking, partly because their brains are still developing and they are more susceptible to peer pressure.

And, of course, there may be other reasons why we enjoy bungee jumping or binge drinking than an attraction to risk and novelty. For example, this can happen in social situations where there’s peer pressure for us to conform, or if we are feeling down or stressed.

Why are we inconsistent?

But if our genes can influence whether we’re brave or fearful, how come we are so inconsistent in our behaviour? For example, we may sky dive on holiday yet buy travel insurance.

Have we all got an inner piglet? wikimedia

We act differently based on whether the risk is perceived to gain reward or avoid loss - an effect known as framing. Most of us tend to avoid risky rewards - we’d rather not go sky diving - but in the case of an unlikely event with a high payout such as a lottery ticket, we’re happy to take a risk. We also normally seek risk in order to avoid huge losses. This is affected by how likely it is that the outcome might occur. In the case of an unlikely but possibly very bad outcome, such as the risk of incurring massive debt while hospitalised in a foreign country, we become risk averse and buy travel insurance.

People who enjoy danger or suffer from disorders of addiction have different risk tendencies. Pathological users of illegal drugs, alcohol or food all seek risk in the face of rewards - by going after the high. But those who use illegal drugs are driven by more risky high rewards whereas those that pathologically use alcohol or food are driven by less risky lower rewards.

How likely we are to take risks can also be manipulated. A study in rats showed that risk taking can be reduced by mimicking the dopamine signal providing information about the negative outcomes from previous risky choices - such as a shock to the foot or not receiving food. Risk taking in binge drinkers can also be reduced when they are explicitly exposed to a loss outcome - such as experiencing a loss of money rather than just expecting it. A night in an emergency room may therefore be enough to change their behaviour.

Also, a new and unexpected context can increase risk-taking behaviours, which could explain why we are more likely to take risks on holiday. In a recent study, my colleagues and I showed participants a series of faces - familiar or unknown ones - and asked them to choose between a risky gamble or a safe choice.

When shown a new face, subjects were more likely to take the risky gamble. The study showed that those with greater brain activity in the striatum, a region involved in dopamine release, to the new face made greater risky choices. These findings suggest that novelty increases dopamine release in this area of the brain, which then possibly enhances the expectation of reward.

But being drawn to danger isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our society needs both risk takers and risk avoiders to function. We need those that push boundaries - to set up camp on Mars or rescue people from fires - and we need those that write the rules and enforce regulations to keep society functioning.

Valerie Voon, Honorary Consultant Neuropsychiatrist and Senior Clinical Research Associate, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Stop Reading Business Books and Start Reading History: The Stories Behind Great Human Achievements are More Inspiring and More Useful Than the Management Fad du Jour

by Michael Troiano, venture storyteller, lyrical gangsta. Actifio CMO, thoughts are my own, http://about.me/miketrap, Be Yourself: https://byrslf.co/stop-reading-business-books-and-start-reading-history-bf3fb7ee88f0#.bkdzagvob

Just finished The Great Bridge, the story of the design and building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by the Equally Great David McCullough.

It’s a detailed and artfully told human story behind one of the great works of modern construction, built at a time of remarkable social and technological change.

McCullough’s The Wright Brothers is another recent favorite in the same vein, as were 1776, John Adams, Brave Companions, and all the rest. Other authors have produced wonderful books in recent years like Founding Brothers, about the often complex and surprising relationships among America’s “Founding Fathers;” In The Garden of Beasts, about the role of the American ambassador in Berlin during the lead-up to World War II; and Over The Edge of the World, detailing Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe.

It occurred to me listening to Hamilton with my kids in the car the other day that we’re in a kind of golden age of history right now, a time where deeply researched, sensitively informed, and beautifully crafted stories of human struggle and achievement are more numerous and readily available than ever before.

Reading a few pages of these books at night helps me pull out of the harness of my day. They provide some context for whatever I’m up against right now, and help me connect to people from not so long ago - in some cases truly great, in others just like you and me - who did amazing things in places not so far away.

There was a time when I read nothing but business books, as I know many of my fellow entrepreneurs prefer to do. Each had something to offer, to be sure, though usually not much more than a single new idea or two, and often surrounded by an under-satisfying mix of data, analysis, anecdote, and fluff.

But why do that? Don’t you spend enough time in that world during the day? Might it not be better to connect to something a little bigger, a little more significant, in the narrow window of time you have to yourself?

Give it a shot. Here’s a list of my favorites … scan for one that looks interesting to you, and check it out.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Reclaiming Friendship: A Visual Taxonomy of Platonic Relationships to Counter the Commodification of the Word 'Friend'

by M Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by J M Udry
by Maria Popova, syndicated from brainpickings.org, Daily Good: http://www.dailygood.org/story/1373/reclaiming-friendship-a-visual-taxonomy-of-platonic-relationships-to-counter-the-commodification-of-the-word-friend-maria-popova/

What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies - Aristotle

Friendship, C.S. Lewis believed, “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

But the poetic beauty of this sentiment crumbles into untruth for anyone who has ever been buoyed from the pit of despair by the unrelenting kindness of a friend, or whose joys have been amplified by a friend’s warm willingness to bear witness.

I often puzzle over the nature, structure, and function of friendship in human life - a function I have found to be indispensable to my own spiritual survival and, I suspect, to that of most human beings. But during a recent interview on Think Again, I found myself concerned with the commodification of the word “friend” in our culture.

We call “friends” peers we barely know beyond the shallow roots of the professional connection, we mistake mere mutual admiration for friendship, we name-drop as “friends” acquaintances associating with whom we feel reflects favorably on us in the eyes of others, thus rendering true friendship vacant of Emerson’s exacting definition. We have perpetrated a corrosion of meaning by overusing the word and overextending its connotation, compressing into an imperceptible difference the vast existential expanse between mere acquaintanceship and friendship in the proper Aristotelian sense.

In countering this conflation, I was reminded of philosopher Amelie Rorty’s fantastic 1976 taxonomy of the levels of personhood and wondered what a similar taxonomy of interpersonhood might look like. I envisioned a conception of friendship as concentric circles of human connection, intimacy, and emotional truthfulness, each larger circle a necessary but insufficient condition for the smaller circle it embraces.“I live my life in widening circles,” Rilke wrote.

Friendship_BrainPickingsWithin the ether of strangers - all the humans who inhabit the world at the same time as we do, but whom we have not yet met - there exists a large outermost circle of acquaintances.

Inside it resides the class of people most frequently conflated with “friend” in our culture, to whom I’ve been referring by the rather inelegant but necessarily descriptive term person I know and like.

These are people of whom we have limited impressions, based on shared interests, experiences, or circumstances, on the basis of which we have inferred the rough outlines of a personhood we regard positively.

Even closer to the core is the kindred spirit - a person whose values are closely akin to our own, one who is animated by similar core principles and stands for a sufficient number of the same things we ourselves stand for in the world. These are the magnifiers of spirit to whom we are bound by mutual goodwill, sympathy, and respect, but we infer this resonance from one another’s polished public selves - our ideal selves - rather than from intimate knowledge of one another’s interior lives, personal struggles, inner contradictions, and most vulnerable crevices of character.

Some kindred spirits become friends in the fullest sense - people with whom we are willing to share, not without embarrassment but without fear of judgment, our gravest imperfections and the most anguishing instances of falling short of our own ideals and values. The concentrating and consecrating force that transmutes a kinship of spirit into a friendship is emotional and psychological intimacy.

A friend is a person before whom we can strip our ideal self in order to reveal the real self, vulnerable and imperfect, and yet trust that it wouldn’t diminish the friend’s admiration and sincere affection for the whole self, comprising both the ideal and the real.

It is important to clarify here that the ideal self is not a counterpoint to the real self in the sense of being inauthentic. Unlike the seeming self, which springs from our impulse for self-display and which serves as a kind of deliberate mask, the ideal self arises from our authentic values and ideals.

Although it represents an aspirational personhood, who we wish to be is invariably part of who we are - even if we aren’t always able to enact those ideals. In this sense, the gap between the ideal self and the real self is not one of insincerity but of human fallibility. The friend is one who embraces both and has generous patience for the rift between the two.

A true friend holds us lovingly accountable to our own ideals, but is also able to forgive, over and over, the ways in which we fall short of them and can assure us that we are more than our stumbles, that we are shaped by them but not defined by them, that we will survive them with our personhood and the friendship intact.

For a complementary perspective, see poet and philosopher David Whyte on the true meaning of friendship and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of “soul-friend.”

Maria Popova is a cultural curator and curious mind at large, who also writes for Wired UK, The Atlantic and Design Observer, andis the founder and editor in chief of Brain Pickings (which offers a free weekly newsletter).

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Is the Economists' View of People as Rational Still Credible?

Tenterhooks Gustav Deghilage, CC BY-SA
by Nicholas Hanley, University of St Andrews, The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/is-economists-view-of-people-as-rational-still-credible-64338

For years, economists and psychologists have argued about whether the standard model that economists use to explain how people make decisions is correct.

It says that people make rational choices: they weigh all the options against a well-defined set of preferences to choose the one which makes them happiest, or is the most valuable to them.

These preferences - and what a person can afford - define what they are willing to pay for goods and services. Businesses and governments around the world use this view of human behaviour as the basis for weighing the benefits and costs of decisions affecting trillions of pounds every year.

Psychologists are also interested in people’s choices, particularly the effect of emotions. Much of this complements economists' standard view of us. Take emotions related to the object of choice, for instance. If I choose to watch my local football team, part of the attraction might be knowing I will be nervous but excited. I’m making a rational choice to experience the emotion as part of the “pay-off”.

You can say the same about emotions that occur at the moment of decision and are directly related - we call these integral emotions. Suppose you sign up to retrain as a driving instructor. Because of the risk in changing careers, the act of signing up can evoke feelings of fear and even pleasure that help explain the choice.

Where the previous example was about choosing in anticipation of excitement to come, here you experience it immediately. Again, however, it is a rational choice to experience the feeling as part of the decision.

But there’s a third category of emotions that should play no part in a rational choice - incidental emotions. For instance, I am very happy because my football team has won the cup and now I am choosing what to have for dinner. An economist who believes purely in rational actors would say this happiness should not affect what I eat.

Yet behavioural scientists have produced plenty of evidence to the contrary in recent years. They have shown that incidental emotions affect our judgement, decision making and reasoning. They have also shown that changes in people’s happiness can affect the stock market.

This has not been the only challenge to economists' standard model. Behavioural scientists and psychologists have also demonstrated that context can affect decisions - for instance, that people can view choices differently over time - and that we perceive gains and losses differently. Yet these insights are not inconsistent with rational choices. Economists have used them to refine their theories and data analysis.

Incidental emotions are more of a problem. If our choices can be governed by unrelated emotions, we are not always rational after all and economists' tools based on rational choice are undermined. Perhaps for this reason, economists have never to my knowledge taken these findings any further.

Not so rational now … JMaks

Choice and the environment

While the lifeblood of micro economics is consumer behaviour, rational choice has also been used to explain other kinds of human choices and values. For example economists have been using it since the 1970s in relation to how we value environmental “goods” such as cutting air pollution or protecting wilderness.

One method is to ask people to state a maximum they would be willing to pay for a certain product if it were the only way of securing a particular environmental goal. Policy developers and environmental managers have adopted this to provide evidence about the economic benefits of such goals. For example the UK Environment Agency values improvements to river quality in this way.

But is it right to assume people will choose rationally here? Since incidental emotions appear capable of interfering with our purchasing choices, won’t they affect our environmental “choices”, too? My new co-authored paper sought to find out.

We used a laboratory setting at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, where I was a visiting professor. Our 284 student participants first viewed one of three film clips, since films are a good way of inducing particular emotional states. One group watched a happy clip from Love Actually; another group watched a sad clip from Born on the Fourth of July; while a third group watched a neutral clip of stock market reports and golf instructions.

All students then took part in a choice experiment about New Zealand beaches. They had to choose between different packages of environmental attributes related to water quality, sediment levels and fish populations. Some packages were environmentally better overall, while some were a mixed bag. They might choose a package with rising fish populations, high sediment and medium water quality or one with decreasing fish, low sediment and high quality - and so on.

The “price” for each package was to live a certain distance from the beach. Securing better environmental attributes meant choosing to live further away, and hence accepting higher travel costs. The question for each student was how much they were willing to pay and whether they prioritised some benefits over others.

Deal or no deal? Duncan Andison

To our surprise, the participants' emotional state had no significant effect on their choice. Having ruled out the possibility that the films had not worked, our results appear to go against psychologists' findings about incidental emotions and instead endorse rational choice. Why?

It might be because people were being asked to make choices over a public good where many people would benefit. Emotions may have a different effect on our choices over public goods than private goods. Or it could be because our participants were making choices about intentions. There’s a well-developed body of theory that questions the link between what we intend and what we do.

In short, more work is required to understand how our findings fit into the developing picture about people’s choices. The difference between public and private goods looks a particularly worthwhile avenue. If economists' view of behaviour is to remain credible, it is time they examined this area.

In the meantime, we are looking into another area where insights from behavioural science and psychology are ripe for consideration by economists: how choices are affected by your personality type.

Nicholas Hanley, Professor of Environmental Economics, University of St Andrews

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.